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Wednesday, 16 October 1996
Page: 4220

Senator COOK(10.26 a.m.) —Madam Acting Deputy President, I too rise to oppose the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996. I do so as a senator who has had a lifetime's experience in industrial relations, and as a senator who, for three years, was a minister for industrial relations.

This bill should be defeated because it breaches a rock-solid guarantee by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) that nobody will be worse off. It should be defeated because it opens the door to cutting youth wages and introducing a $3 per hour youth wage. It should be defeated because it removes the fairness that is entrenched in the existing industrial relations system. It should be defeated because it does not recognise the legitimacy and desirability of employees organising and bargaining collectively.

It should be defeated because it proceeds from a fundamentally flawed assumption that the parties to the employment relationship have equal bargaining power. It should be defeated because it severely restricts the central role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in the industrial relations system. It should also be defeated because it undermines the award system as the dynamic framework for the protection and advancement of wages and conditions.

It should be defeated because it removes workplace and enterprise bargaining from the protection of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Further, it should be defeated because it will aggravate problems of inequality for women, young people and those most vulnerable in the labour market. It should be defeated because it fails to provide a core framework for the prevention and settlement of industrial disputes.

It should be defeated because it emphasises the punishment of industrial action rather than its resolution. And it should be defeated because it fails to ensure that Australia's labour standards meet those of our international obligations. For those reasons, this bill should be defeated. It should not be withdrawn and rewritten so much as simply withdrawn.

The outcry against this legislation is in itself enough to condemn it. Legislation that promises to promote industrial harmony but which attracts such division in society obviously cannot succeed in its goal. Therefore, on its immediate face it is plainly legislation which is provocative, divisive, bringing a lack of harmony and cooperation, and reintroducing confrontation into the Australian workplace.

That is an example of what is happening now. If this bill were to pass into law, that is what would happen in practice. That is not in Australia's interest. There has to be a way of bringing the parties back together and having a more common view, a greater consensus about the way forward in industrial relations, than this legislation provides.

One of my greatest problems with this bill is the language used to sell it and the language used to explain it. That language is distorted. That language does not corroborate the true meaning of English. It is used to allay worry. It is used to gull the unwary. It is used to confuse the ignorant. And it is used to reassure the apathetic.

The language used to sell this bill is almost as evil as some of the clauses in this legislation. That is the immediate problem that the electors of Australia have in trying to work out the truth here. If they believe the language used to flog this legislation in the community, they will be absolutely misguided as to what this legislation does.

I just think there is a real case for some truth in advertising or truth in politics about what really is at play rather than what people claim to be at play. This bill is predicated on a number of principles. They are that it will uphold the rights of individuals, that it will encourage greater productivity, that it will streamline dispute settlement and that it will be in the national good. Those who wrought this legislation and explain it use those principles and invoke the majesty of those ideals as their defence. The trouble is it does not deliver on any of them and while this bill is called reform one could hardly call something reform when it makes the situation worse. While it is continually bruited abroad as reform, people think it may have elements of good.

I wish I could find some elements of good so I could balance my remarks from a considered point of view and say, `On one hand there are all these bad things but there are some elements of good.' That would be a reasonable position to take. I cannot find those elements of good in this legislation to try to find a balanced position. I am therefore put in a position of having no alternative but to reject the legislation. The truth of this legislation does not fit the facts and so those who have promoted it have decided that the facts are expendable.

Let me go to the details so I do not just say that as rhetoric. It is said that this bill will introduce greater wage flexibility. In fact, that is true. Greater wage flexibility will be introduced by this bill, but it will be flexibility for wages to fall, not rise. There might be occasions on which some wages for workers in very strong bargaining positions, in key positions of the production process, are able to use their bargaining power to lift wages. But for the vast majority of Australians, this bill means that the flexibility that is bruited abroad and claimed as a key feature of this bill is the flexibility for wage cuts, not wage increases or greater recognition of productivity.

It is said that this bill will introduce greater choice for individuals and, therefore, on the basis of freedom of choice this bill should pass. That choice takes the form that you can choose an award or a contract or an individual contract. The fact is that those words are meaningless and superficial. They are used because they have an appeal and seemingly embody a good ideal. But the truth is that you cannot consider choice without considering the bargaining strengths of the participants in the process.

Last week we saw a key example of what bargaining strength looks like. We saw an advertisement for 40 apprentices in Newcastle—and 1,900 people applied for those jobs. For the individual choice argument to hold, any one of those 1,900 people who are trying to obtain employment as an apprentice has to be assumed to have equal bargaining power with the employer who will engage them. They can then stand up for their rights and demand higher wages if they believe their productivity and contribution to the workplace justify it.

Can anyone seriously comprehend that any of those young people seeking the job of an apprentice—the 1,900 of them—has an equal bargaining position with their employer in those circumstances? That is an extraordinary proposition yet we are told that this is a freedom of choice. The assumption is, therefore, that all of those 1,900 young people are free to make a choice. In reality the free choice they are entitled to make in these circumstances—the only one they have open to them—is a choice of accepting what is offered or accepting unemployment; and that is no choice at all. When we hear those words `greater freedom of choice' one has to bear that in mind.

We also know that not all employers are going to be unscrupulous. There are many employers in this country who are committed to achieving a good outcome for their workers. The problem for those employers is that they are undermined by this bill too, because if they are in competition with employers who are unscrupulous and who will drive down wages and exploit workers, and produce a product or a service at the end of the day because of that exploitation, which is cheaper than the employers who want to do the right thing by their work force, the good employers go out of business and the bad employers succeed. They succeed because they have exploited their workers and cut their wages. They have reduced their costs and made a bigger profit; and they have driven their competition off the block. When one talks about flexibility and greater choice one has to bear that in mind.

We are told that this bill will ensure that third parties do not interfere in the bargaining process. The third party, unspoken but malevolently referred to here, is of course a union. A union exists to protect and represent the interests of its members and not to do it individually so much as as a collective. If that body is unable to speak in this bargaining process, the bargaining power of which I spoke a moment ago is unequal. If all of those 1,900 apprentices who applied for the 40 positions in Newcastle last week were represented by a common bargaining agent, namely their union, and it could negotiate a reasonable wage all of them would be competing equally for those 40 positions, knowing that the wages and working conditions were not a factor.

If you remove that union from the equation, those people are competing on their merit as potential employees as well as bargaining away their rights and reducing their cost. That is a key case of exploitation. So when we hear this argument about third parties not interfering, that means we are shifting the bargaining strengths away from the two parties being in balance to one in which one party is predominant and the other is open to exploitation. Workers in those situations have limited choices.

It is said of this legislation that it will allow unions to compete for members—but compete with whom? It will mean competing with their employers as this legislation is set out because if it is true—as it is—that the clarion cry of unions is `Unity is strength; together we can bargain' then the clarion cry for unscrupulous employers is `Divide and conquer.' That means that the so-called competition for members, which sounds on the face of it to be a reasonable thing to do, means that you undermine the strength of unions by dividing and conquering them, and by separating out the members individually and dealing with them away from the collective and away from their common good. Thus, you again succeed in the goal of reducing wages.

It is said of this bill that Australia will become a more productive nation and will focus on productivity, and that that will be a good thing. It is a good thing to focus on productivity. Historically, in labour productivity and capital productivity, this nation enjoyed record rates of productivity growth under the previous government. By international comparisons within its peer group economies of the OECD, Australia's productivity growth has been growing much faster than that of many other countries. So what is the problem? The problem is that this is claimed to be an increase in productivity by making people work harder—not by making people work smarter, not by being better trained and skilled and thus better able to work the complex and sophisticated plant and equipment to deliver high quality services, but, rather, by working faster and harder as in the concept of the old days of the industrial revolution. That is stupid.

The psychology of this bill is, in fact, against greater productivity. To achieve greater productivity these days, it does not matter whether individuals work harder. That is determined by the speed of the production line. It means that if we are going to work smarter as a country, manufacture high quality, sophisticated consumer products and deliver high quality, sophisticated services, the emphasis must be on training in the use of the plant and equipment to produce more per head through sophisticated technology than individuals can possibly achieve.

It is said of this bill that the Industrial Relations Commission continues. It does in name only, not in fact. The Industrial Relations Commission that was given birth in Australia over 100 years ago by the troubles of the 1890s is an industrial relations commission that we will not recognise in future if this legislation proceeds. That Industrial Relations Commission was built on three basic precepts which have endured and stood the test of time. Its determinations are based on the principles of justice, equity and the substantial merits of the case.

The argument here is that it does not matter how poor or lacking in strength you are; if there is a process of arbitration, the merit of your case and your claim can be determined. The rich and powerful are equal to one opportunity to put their case on merit and the poor and weak are equal to one opportunity to put their case on merit; and an experienced arbitrator, used to the practical way of life, decides. Essentially, that is the theory of arbitration as we know it.

This system and the so-called system that will continue arbitration will remove the powers of that umpire, take away their whistle, restrict them to a narrow area of law and prevent them from determining issues that affect the working lives of men and women and employers and companies in this country across the board. That will mean a limitation of power. The Industrial Relations Commission as we know it will not continue.

It is said of this bill that no worker will be worse off. We know that young workers will be worse off. We know that women workers will be worse off. We know that workers in positions of weak bargaining power will be worse off. Before this election, the Prime Minister said that no worker would be worse off. That was obviously not a core promise; it has been devalued. We already know that workers will be worse off. To see that workers are genuinely worse off, one only has to look at the comparisons of the state jurisdictions in Australia where look-alike legislation has been passed and is now applied

I have done a quick survey of some of the more outrageous claims of what this legislation is about. When one applies the searchlight of practical reality, they are revealed as empty, hollow, misleading and argumentative in the sense that they are trying to con people and not explain to people what the legislation is about.

I said that in the 1890s Australia went through an upheaval in its industrial relations system. It did. The outcry that rang across the nation then was `There must be a better way. We can't be continually racked with the major disputes that go on endlessly with no possibility of resolution and with the bitterness of their aftermath that endures endlessly. We can't do that.' Australia then created the system of arbitration. That has evolved over time. It is predictable, understandable and is what Australians know as the way to industrial justice. That is what we are used to. It is a system that works. The old cry `If it ain't broke don't fix it' does not apply. This system ain't broke and it does not need to be thrown out and recast through this legislation.

This system always needs improvement; it always needs to be upgraded according to the circumstances. Over time the arbitration system has been, and during the last period of the Labor government it was. It was broadened and deepened and made more flexible to meet the needs of Australia's economy moving into the global economy and reduced levels of protection in this country. It was done in a way in which it protected the rights of Australians but with a safety net protection that ensured that no-one could be exploited, while the opportunity and encouragement was there for workers to choose collective bargaining as a way of collaborating with their employers to increase the productivity of their company and, by increasing their productivity, get a greater income for that company on the basis that shareholders and management, workers and employees would share equally and fairly in the increased productivity that those that provide the investment, those that provide the managerial skills and those that provide the practical workplace skills to make a product or deliver a service participated in so the shares would be equal, no-one would be exploited and there could be a basis for common cooperation. That was the basis on which we amended legislation. It was optional and it was free. No force or coercion was applied. There was opportunity and inducement. If people did not want to take it then there was a managerial task to find a way in which they could.

This legislation introduces force and coercion. It introduces a system to force people out of awards. One only has to look at the statistics of some of the look-alike states like Victoria and Western Australia to see how that has happened. We have had a system that has served this nation well, has evolved over time, has been modified to the circumstances, has worked well, was predictable and understood, was known about and was not broken. That will all be cast out and a new system, which has created major problems elsewhere in Australia, will be introduced.

This is not an academic argument, though. There is an empirical test here. There is basic evidence now as to the differences between the system that Labor had and the system that this coalition government proposes to introduce. It is none other than a report by the Department of Industrial Relations into enterprise bargaining in Australia, the annual report in 1995, which is a voluminous document, too complex to go into now.

Essentially, it is able to compare how many workers went into enterprise or workplace bargains at the federal level under the industrial regulation of the former government and how many and what type of bargains they went into at the state level under the Kennett government and the Court government, how those bargains operated, what the satisfaction level was and what the productivity outcomes were.

The unequivocal finding is that the system that we had worked; that 60 per cent of workplaces with 10 or more employees under the federal system went into those bargains, compared with hardly any, unless they were forced, at the state level; that 75 per cent of all those employees that went into those bargains expressed a high level of satisfaction; and that, from October 1991 to April 1996, 8,000 federal agreements were ratified. So the system is working. The arguments that we need to make a revolutionary change are not justified and the proposals here therefore should be scotched. I reject the legislation. (Time expired)